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art at work

Here's what it's like to live inside this unusual 114-year-old fire station

It’s home to 10 visual artists – and the building next door has been converted into apartments for them too.

Front of Fire Station

IF YOU LOOK closely at the fire station in the photo (with its gorgeous 1900 redbrick facade), you can see a rundown building to its left.

That derelict house used to be carpeted by dead pigeons. But it has been transformed into a building housing two apartments, a gorgeous courtyard, and gallery space.

Welcome to the Fire Station Artists’ Studios

The old house has now joined onto its imposingly handsome neighbour to become part of Fire Station Artists’ Studios on Dublin’s Buckingham St, which was opened in 1993.

Since then, it has been home to more than 80 artists including Sean Hillen, Corban Walker, Alice Maher, Jesse Jones and Patrick Graham and has supported over 100 artists annually.

Earlier this week, the two new apartments in the former pigeon-infested house were officially opened by President Michael D Higgins, bringing Fire Station’s subsidised work-living spaces from eight to 10.

It’s a sign not only of how well Fire Station is doing, but of how much of a need there is for affordable spaces for emerging Irish artists.

A demand for space in which to create

Fire Station’s director, Clodagh Kenny, summed it up when she said:

For the past 21 years the demand for residential studios has increased year on year. At a time when cut-backs within the arts are, unfortunately, widespread, we are proud of this significant development and the opportunity to increase our capacity to support visual artists in Ireland.

Studio 8 at Fire Station

Being chosen to work at Fire Station (each artist has to go through an intense selection process) means that the artists get to fully immerse themselves in their practice by bringing their work and art together.

On the eve of the launch of the new living spaces, took a tour of Fire Station and found out why it’s so important to artists.

How are the artists chosen?

“The criteria is always the same – it’s their commitment to their practice. And a high quality [of work],” said Kenny of the selection process.

There are three Fire Station working executives, and three non-Fire Station members, on the board that chooses the artists.

IMG_6936 Work by Joanne Reid at the sculpture workshop Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

They select people who are at a certain point in their careers, and who are in the field of being Arts Council supported – people who are “pushing boundaries”.

“The work has to be really strong, the commitment to their practice has to be really strong,” said Kenny, adding that they also must demonstrate a need for such a space.

“They don’t have to be poor, but they show rationale about why this would be beneficial to them.”

IMG_6937 Work by Vanessa Donoso at the sculpture workshop Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

As well as the physical space, they also have the support from the staff at Fire Station, which comes in very handy for applying for Arts Council grants, meeting international curators, attending events, trying new techniques, and putting on shows.

The aim is to prepare the artists for the next stage of their career. “The other thing about the next stage is it’s really bloody hard,” said Kenny.

I think it’s really hard to be an artist and you’re sort of agreeing not to have a lot of money. You’re highly educated and yes, very often people who get into the arts have come from affluence. What I mean by affluence is an expectation of education, that sort of background, rather than monetary affluence. And that is a privilege so you could say very often you would have expectations of a different sort of lifestyle.

“It’s very hard to make a living out of being an artist. And those who are successfully doing that, it’s fantastic to see. I just love to see that people can make a living but it’s not the majority,” said Kenny.

But she said that artists are of course creative by nature, “so they’re problem solvers”.

“I’m not saying that I think it’s acceptable that they get cut all the time, but they find solutions,” said Kenny.

IMG_6952 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

At Fire Station, they recognise that artists have to go international to really push their career.

Ireland is very small, a very small ecology, a very small economy. You have to go out further. So it’s through arts organisations like ourselves and others that we can be that platform for artists, so that they have more income opportunities.

Fire Station is also a resource for artists, holding talks, screenings and workshops. Plus, there is a focus on its connection with the local community.

What it’s like to live in Fire Station

IMG_6978 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

Bridget O’Gorman moved into Fire Station about two months ago.

“Being offered a studio at Fire Station has marked a pivotal development to my career,” she said. “Both studio and living accommodation means that I don’t have to spend time working to pay for both separately. All of my bills are included, meaning I can dedicate more time to my practice.”

She also appreciates the sense of community, being able to attend visual art events easily, and “if I want to work late into the night I can do so without disturbing anyone”.

She lives in studio one, a cottage that is one of the smallest studios. “It’s a really efficient use of space for me,” said O’Gorman.

She uses a variety of media and processes, and makes good use of the sculpture workshop, the digital editing room and other facilities.

IMG_6942 Inside the sculpture workshop Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

“Basically all of this means I can be much more efficient and ambitious with my practice,” said O’Gorman.

“It’s been a real vital injection into my career,” she continued. “There’s a lot of stuff to factor when you’re trying to get your career off the ground. Fire Station and places like this make it more doable. It propels you forward in ways that I can’t describe.”

I do think having more spaces like this would be really good for the visual arts in Ireland.

Affordable studio and living space for artists is “a big problem at the moment”, said O’Gorman. “We need a lot more of it.”

She’s heading to the UK for a residency exchange soon, which was facilitated through Fire Station. Opportunities like this help her to “pursue meaningful and sustainable professional connections outside Ireland”.

Here’s an artist about to move into Fire Station 

IMG_6964 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

Gareth Kennedy is a solo visual artist and also part of the duo Kennedy Browne, and is one of the first two people to take up a Fire Station residency in the new apartments. He’s moving in in August.

For the last few years he’s been doing a lot of travelling across Europe and the United States, undertaking projects and realising exhibitions.

“As such the kind of opportunity to move into Fire Station and get an integrated system with the fantastic facilities there, and also the community of artists around, it’s just a really good time for me to consolidate my practice,” he said.

It’s good timing for him, and the beginning of a new cycle for his work, which is very research-driven and invested in place.

“That is fantastic but there’s facets of that type of lifestyle that aren’t sustainable as well,” he said. “This is an opportunity to consolidate, reflect, and to kind of anchor myself within Dublin as a node.”

He’s looking forward “to having a sustained domestic life again”, down to the simple things like having his own kitchen.

IMG_6973 Aoife Barry / Aoife Barry / /

“I feel very lucky and privileged,” said Kennedy. His close friend and collaborator Sarah Browne has been living at Fire Station, so he’s familiar with how it works.

I know the benefit it has had on Sarah’s practice and other peers’ practice. It’s a really good place and a really good context and I’m very lucky to be awarded it against stiff competition.

Artists work in their own ways – “we gather all sort of tools and equipment and all sorts of oddball materials” – and work flexible hours. “All of these kinds of things necessitate a very particular kind of space to optimise the work to be made,” said Kennedy.

The idea of an artist retreat or solitude is “an old hat concept”, he said. “Work comes through dialogue and engagement.”

As for Ireland’s contemporary art output in relation to the international scene, Kennedy thinks “we punch a little bit below our weight”.

“We’ve got fantastic artists but I think we need to keep putting our talents in the world and keep it circulating.”

Read: It’s easier than you think to turn an empty building into a creative space>

Read: Here’s how you turn vacant buildings into creative spaces>

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